Before becoming president of the seminary, I helped organize an informal meeting for pastors of large metropolitan churches. Three days each year, we gathered to share experiences and ideas, in what became for us one of the most valuable meetings on the calendar.
At the first meeting in Callaway Gardens, Georgia, each preacher told how he usually prepared sermons. I was amazed. Each pastor’s style was different, and the differences were radical. Several of the preachers planned so far ahead they had Easter sermons completed by December! Others organized their work so that Sunday morning’s sermon was always ready by Wednesday, and Sunday evening’s message by Friday.
At the opposite end of this ministerial spectrum, was one preacher who worked on his sermon through the week, but always waited until Sunday morning to write it out. I’d be a nervous wreck if I waited until early Sunday morning to finish my sermon; but for him it was a system that worked well. Two things were clear from that meeting; first, there are as many sermon preparation styles as there are preachers, and, second, my style wasn’t so bad after all!
As a pastor, you have no task more important than preaching. There may be other pastoral duties you enjoy more, but the primary responsibility to which God has called you is preparing and delivering sermons.
Each Lord’s Day you stand in the pulpit before a congregation expecting to hear a word from God. Their minds are preoccupied with questions that are deeper than life, and they want answers. Some are worried about important decisions they must make next week, decisions that will affect their lives and the lives of their families. They need guidance. Heartbroken and pressured, they bring with them guilt, anxiety, and discouragement, and they want to be reassured that God will help them.
And there you stand, every eye fixed on you, every ear listening. What a responsibility! You dare not take it lightly. You must not step to that pulpit unprepared. They’ll not be helped by a shallow presentation of your opinions; they’re waiting for the Word of God.
You may be proud of your sense of humor, but they’re not here to be entertained, no matter how clever you are. Don’t try to dazzle them with a brilliant analysis of some favorite theological trivia. They want spiritual encouragement, assurance, forgiveness, and strength, and it’s up to you to help them find it in God’s Word. Can you imagine any task more challenging?
On the other hand, there is no task more exciting, more fulfilling than the preparation and delivery of sermons. The times I’ve felt closest to the Lord during my thirty-two years of ministry have been in the study with the open Bible before me on the desk, or in the sanctuary with the open Bible before me on the pulpit.
Often, at my desk, an insight would flash into my consciousness as if a light switch had been turned on. An illustration that was just right would come to mind. Or, halfway through a familiar verse I had read a hundred times, there would emerge some exciting new meaning. Gushing with enthusiasm, I would rush from the study to show Betty my new insight, only to be reminded that these mystical moments were really meant to encourage me at a particular time. I couldn’t express them to her in the same way. You just had to be there.
Furthermore, there were those exquisite moments when I sensed in the midst of preaching a sermon that it really was happening. God really was speaking through the sermon! Those are the mountain peaks in a preacher’s life. You’ve been there, and you know what I mean. So, let’s examine that challenging and exciting duty you face every week in the pastoral ministry: preparing sermons.
The Computer and Sermon Preparation
Your personal style of preparing sermons may be unique. It may not be a classic style that homiletics experts would applaud, but it’s your style. Sure, it could use some improvements, but it works pretty well, and you have no great urge to change it. My purpose here is not to discuss the merits of various methods of sermon preparation, but to show how the computer can enhance and improve whatever system you use.
Every style, no matter how unique, will include, in some order, each of the following steps.
1. Prayerfully choosing a text or subject for your sermon.
2. Thoroughly exegeting the biblical material to determine what the text meant in its original historical context.
3. Honestly interpreting the text to determine what it means to the people who will hear your sermon.
4. Carefully developing a thesis and an outline of your sermon.
5. Completely writing out your sermon in a manuscript or a detailed outline.
6. Sufficiently rehearsing your sermon in order to preach it confidently.
7. Faithfully preserving your sermon material in a file for future use.
8. Hopefully, preaching your sermon again on other occasions in the future.
This natural cycle of sermon preparation, delivery, and filing is essential to good homiletics. You can shortcut the cycle, but the quality of preparation and, therefore, the effectiveness of the sermon will suffer. Since all the elements- are important, you should organize your time schedule, library resources, office personnel, and devotional time to allow the complete cycle to function each week.
Can a microcomputer help you with this recurring cycle? Yes. Looking back, I wish the computer had been available to help me prepare and store those 2,000 sermons filed in the shelves behind my desk. OK, so I was born thirty years too soon. But I’m catching up fast, and in just a short time, I’ve learned to apply computer skills to many of the routine responsibilities of my work, including the steps of sermon preparation. Here are some suggestions that may help you take the electronic plunge, too.
Choosing a Text or a Subject
While the computer may not give great assistance in this important step, it does put you in touch with some clever tools to make it easier. One is an ingenious program marketed by Bible Research Systems in Austin, Texas, called THE WORD Processor. It’s an electronic concordance of the King James Version of the Bible. Load it into your computer, and you can search both the Old and New Testaments for words, phrases, or names, and set up your own indexed files for personal study. The company has just released an added feature that lets you search the Bible for topics, too. For example, you can automatically list on your screen or on your printer all the passages dealing with “Spiritual Gifts,” “Doubt,” “Hope,” “Fellowship with Christ,” or more than 200 other topics.
THE WORD Processor can help you find that passage from God’s Word you need as a text or a scriptural background for your subject. I predict there will soon be a flood of similar programs on the market, and, if the usual pattern of software development is repeated, each one will be better than the last. You’ll be glad you have the equipment to use them.
Exegesis and Interpretation
Browsing through their computer section during one of my recent forays to a local bookstore, I discovered a 500-page volume entitled The Computer Phone Book.1 It listed over four hundred bulletin boards, information services, and other networks you can access with your microcomputer. The variety of subjects listed is almost endless: dating services, advertising, health, games, space, sororities, want ads, self-help programs, role-playing, counseling, alternate energy sources, dial-a-joke, and the list goes on. Regretfully, but not surprising in our permissive society, some of the bulletin boards specialize in sexually explicit material. Satan already is at work in this infant industry.
There is, however, a brighter side. I’ve found many bulletin boards which have a Christian orientation. “Computers for Christ” in Ontario, California, is one of several listed in The Phone Book. Its special purpose, according to the listing, is to provide “text files on various religious subjects, with special emphasis on Christianity.” Mike Cane, the author of the directory, said, “I would like to note that one of the high points in compiling The Computer Phone Book was having an on-line chat with the sysop of this BBS.”1 (Sysop means system operator, and BBS stands for Bulletin Board Service.) Mike Cane was obviously touched by the witness of this Christian technician. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit also is at work in this infant industry.
I hope a creative Christian computer expert will soon find a way to penetrate these mushrooming national networks for the purpose of “on-line evangelism.” But that’s a subject for another article. The point here is that the preacher has a huge treasure of information for sermon research right at his fingertips.
One of the national networks, for example, is BRS AFTER DARK, a new venture of Bibliographic Retrieval Service (BRS), a company that has primarily provided databases to businesses, universities, and libraries. BRS has been expensive, but BRS AFTER DARK now offers their service to the public during nonprime time at a fraction of the cost professional clients pay. You can get reports, articles, magazines, journals, and government studies on countless subjects. Abstracts are also provided, and you can “download” them directly to your own computer. BRS AFTER DARK is a storehouse of material for research.
Others described in The Phone Book are: DELPHI, Dow Jones, CompuServe, Electronic Information Exchange System, KNOWLEDGE INDEX, NewsNet, and THE SOURCE. I’m sure this list doesn’t begin to exhaust the possibilities. New sources are being offered each month. But perhaps this is enough to whet your appetite and to convince you that computers can help you with research information for sermons.
But that’s not all they can do to help you with exegesis. How do you take down notes from the commentaries as you study them? A dictation machine? Yellow pad and pencil? Underlining the sentences and making notations in the margins? (That’s not a seminary library book you’re marking up is it?) In my sermon preparation days, B.C. (before computers), I usually took handwritten notes on the verses as I read each commentary. A new insight here, a good illustration there, and in between a clearer translation. I took them down laboriously on a legal pad. Even with my ingenious system of biblical and theological shorthand, it was slow and tedious.
Then, since my notes were grouped under each commentary as I studied it, I had to cut and paste my memos in order to compile them into a single exegesis. I also used what I thought was a clever method of transferring salient ideas and illustrations into folders, each one holding material on one point or division of the sermon. Good opening story? Drop it in the “Introduction” folder. Concise application of verse 6? That belongs in the folder for the third point of the message. Great illustration, but it doesn’t seem to fit anywhere? Hold it in the “Misc.” folder. Later, I can work it in whether it fits or not; it’s too good to hold until next Sunday!
At last, with all the research completed and neatly categorized, it was time to polish the outline, and start putting the meat on the bones. With some variations, this familiar pattern was my style The basic elements of it are still in place, but the computer has upgraded my style and reduced the “busy-work.”
Simultaneously, while writing this, I’m also working on the sermon I’m to preach at the Southern Baptist Convention. Right now, I’m plowing through a dozen commentaries on the Scripture passages the Lord has impressed me to use. As I come across a thought I want to take down, I pause for a moment in memory of my retired legal pads, and quickly write it out on the keyboard of the Model 4P.
At this stage, I’m more concerned about speed than accuracy, so I cut loose with my fastest rate of typing. (A little slower than my printer’s 200 words a minute.) The order in which I take down the notes is not important either. I can move them where I want them later. Since it’s easy to do on the computer, I also type in a key word with each reference to indicate the point of the sermon it seems to address. Or, if I’m not sure where it fits, I just give it a generic label such as “illustration,” for example. Later, the word processor’s search feature lets me pull together all those notes that belong in a certain category, and my sermon research file is quickly assimilated. Besides, I can save the notes on a disk for later reference should I preach on this text again. The sheer ease with which additions and changes are made will impress you. You’ll never go back to the old ways.
Outlining and Writing the Sermon
With basic research and exegesis completed, the next step in preparing a sermon is to compose its content. Most preaching books suggest that you begin by developing a sermon thesis, that is, a concise statement of what you want to say. You probably had one in mind when you chose a text or began plowing through the commentaries, but now’s the time to put the finishing touches on a clear statement of purpose. Otherwise, your message may not possess that essential quality of unity.
If the congregation is to comprehend it, your sermon must have clarity and coherence. Listeners don’t like to struggle as they unravel the development of your thesis. So give them a clear outline to help them. Even if you don’t intend to enumerate the usual “three points,” your sermon should still have an outline. If the preacher doesn’t organize his sermon, if he fails to unify his ideas and order its parts, he can’t expect his listeners to search for the unity or uncover the structure in order to understand it.
In his classic How to Read a Book,-Mortimer J. Adler suggested that reading and writing are reciprocal arts. A logical outline is important to both writer and reader (or preacher and listener). The preacher starts with the skeleton and tries to cover it up. The listener tries to uncover the skeleton which the sermon conceals. Although he was primarily aiming at book writers, Adler’s advice is applicable to sermon writers, too.
His aim is to conceal the skeleton artistically, or, in other words, to put flesh on the bare bones. If he is a good writer, he does not bury a puny skeleton under a mass of fat; on the other hand, neither should the flesh be too thin, so that the bones show through. If the flesh is thick enough, and if flabbiness is avoided, the joints will be detected and the motion of the parts will reveal the articulation.2
So, with a clear thesis before him to preserve the sermon’s unity, and a logical outline to preserve its coherence, the preacher is ready to “put the meat on the bones.”
Do you write out your sermons in manuscript form? Homiletics experts may differ on many elements of sermon preparation, but on one point they’re almost unanimous. Namely, that preparing a full manuscript can transform mediocre sermons into better sermons. Sure, there are weeks when your time gets eaten up by those unplanned events which circle your schedule like hungry vultures. In spite of noble intentions to the contrary, even homiletical purists have to settle, at times, for a hurried, sketchy outline in place of a carefully prepared manuscript.
I remember many a frantic Saturday night when, haunted by a ticking clock, I rushed through the final steps of preparation, reluctantly concluding that an “expanded” outline was all I had time to prepare. But, at the same time, I must admit that my better sermons were those I carefully wrote word for word, revised, corrected, improved, and maybe even totally rewrote.
Although I never memorized my manuscripts, preparing one helped me master my material better. Besides, whenever I put down precisely what I wanted to say, I entered the pulpit armed not only with the spiritual confidence that comes from dependence on the Holy Spirit, but with that special confidence that comes from being prepared.
But whether you compose a full text or create a detailed outline, you have to do extensive writing, fleshing out the skeleton with the real content of the sermon. That’s when a word processor gives you valuable assistance.
Electronic Writing
From the initial stages of research to the final manuscript, sermon preparation involves lots of writing. Writing is a craft, like carpentry, with its own tools: words, grammar, syntax, style. Like carpentry, writing skills can be learned. The tools can be mastered. Since writing is the logical arrangement of thought, if you’re able to think clearly, you should be able to write clearly.
However, in order to sharpen his skills, the writer must be able to see his work so he can repeatedly revise it until it says what he intended. In spite of his best efforts at a first draft, the writer’s sentences may be muddy instead of transparent; illogical instead of convincing. They become boring, pompous, or cluttered with unnecessary words. Lacking rhythm, the phrases may plod clumsily across the page. These are the flaws a conscientious writer attacks as he hones his craft. He places his composition before him and fiddles with it until it’s right.
Dictating to a secretary may be convenient and quick; but, if you want to improve your writing, you must see your words before you. Our spoken sentences are usually full of repetition and sloppy constructions, which don’t translate well to the written page. Furthermore, a secretary, typing from a dictating machine, can easily misunderstand; and, unless you read what’s been typed, you may discover it’s not what you meant. That can be embarrassing.
In Texas years ago, during a heated campaign against horse race gambling, I received a letter expressing concern about “pari-mutuel betting.” Obviously, the letter had been dictated but never proofread. Instead of “pari-mutuel betting,” the secretary had understood her boss to say, “her mutual bedding!” It sounded evil, but I couldn’t be certain from the letter what moral issue we were fighting.
So, seeing is a key to writing. By seeing words instead of merely speaking them the writer can recognize more readily where improvements need to be made. This visual advantage in composition has been greatly enhanced by word processors. They help polish our writing by displaying the words for our consideration and giving us an instant chance to reconsider them. For this reason, more and more preachers and other craftsmen with words are switching to electronic writing, watching their words appear on the screen and discovering how much easier it is to manipulate these tools of the trade. Why not you?
I had an experience a few weeks ago that may convince you to join the trend. He’s one of those metropolitan church pastors who shared his sermon preparation style in the meeting I told you about earlier. We’re good friends, so I knew he wouldn’t mind my stopping by his study unannounced. His secretary led me through his regular office to a library/study where he was busy writing a book.
“My editor said it’s either finish this manuscript, or else!” he said. “So I’m squeezing in some writing every free moment I can.” The scene was familiar to everyone who’s ever written a sermon or anything else for that matter: large desk covered with material with not one square inch of its wooden surface exposed; a dozen books, each stacked open on top of the other; magazines with paper clips marking passages; photocopies of other material scattered about. Any writer would have felt right at home. I could’ve sat down in his chair and picked up the task with no trouble — except for one thing.
There it was right in front of him on the desk: a diminutive, ancient portable typewriter. Ugh! It had a repulsive look. I didn’t realize how far I had come in the short time since I adopted word processing. Even though I tried to squelch it, I’m sure a glimmer of self-righteous superiority momentarily shattered my usual composure. A condescending sense of pity welled up inside as I looked at that pathetic relic from the past — the typewriter, that is, not the preacher! It looked “Paleolithic” compared to my TRS-80.
I listened as my friend proudly described the writing process he had used for years: looking up material, tapping out notes on the aging typewriter, cutting and pasting these under various categories, and then composing it all into a first draft. That’s where he was when I came in — on the first draft.
“Here’s a sample sheet,” he said, handing me a piece of paper, which upon examination, looked strangely familiar. It was exactly like sheets of my own writing in earlier days — double-spaced, typed edge to edge without margins, its lines all askew from failing to get the paper back in position after a correction. It was a mess. There were strikeovers, entire sections “X-ed” out, and holes worn through by a zealous eraser. Rose-colored lint left by the erasers still clung to the page. Two paragraphs had been circled by pencil, and a hand-drawn arrow pointed to another place in the text where he wanted them inserted. There were a few words scratched out and replaced with handwritten synonyms.
“It’s about ready to be typed one more time,” he said. “And then I’ll give it to the secretary to prepare a clean copy. After I proofread that, she’ll correct it and send the final manuscript to that pushy editor.” Having written several “best-sellers” over the years, he had gotten used to this procedure. For him it sufficed, but turning to leave, I took one last glance at the antique typewriter, and I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt I would never go back.
For a moment there in his study I saw myself at work writing projects before the Model 4P came into my life. When composing a sermon, or a book, I had differed from him in only one regard. I never could compose directly on the typewriter. When the collected notes and quotes were to be collated into a first draft, I always wrote it out by hand, relying on my legal pads and a “bouquet” of sharpened pencils — you know, a handful of golden freshly sharpened Number Twos, dropped, eraser first, into a container so that the uniform lead points fan out into a bouquet of cedar and graphite. That distinctive aroma given off by freshly sharpened pencils still stirs in me an urge to write.
Admittedly, arranging a new box of pencils had often consumed an undue amount of time, especially during that painful period when you can’t get started, when you busy yourself with getting everything ready. Many a great sermon waited to be written until each pencil was run through the electric sharpener one more time and gathered with others to be dropped jauntily into a vase. Now rub your hands together. Be sure you have enough legal pads handy. Reshuffle your material and stack it next to the pencils. Rearrange the pencils one more time. Now you’re ready to write. Oops! The time is gone; you’ll have to start all over again tomorrow. That was the way I used to do it.
My writing style was slow and tedious. Even with sharpened pencils and my special shorthand, it was slow. When the creative juices were really flowing, my fingers could never keep pace with my thoughts. Whoever said, “let your fingers do the walking,” never tried to keep up with the brain in putting ideas on paper with a pencil. Your fingers have to run, not walk. And hurrying only makes it worse. My manuscripts were sometimes as unreadable as a doctor’s prescription. Believe me, it’s embarrassing to take your sermon notes to a pharmacist and ask him to decipher what you’ve written!
Now all that has changed. The keyboard of the model 4P doesn’t intimidate me like the old typewriter did. Oh, at first I had some trouble getting used to it. Sometimes I would get ahead of my fingers on the keys, putting spaces within words, or hitting keys too many times. Somme of my sentences looked something liketh is, and I spent a lot of time backing up the cursor to make corrections. In fact, the “left cursor” key became my favorite; the little finger on my right hand became so familiar with its location I could strike it without even lookingg. Oops! There I go again.
But don’t worry about errors; they’re so easily corrected, you feel free to type at maximum speed. What’s more, your manual dexterity improves the more you practice. After awhile, you begin to type fast enough to keep up with your thoughts, getting those precious flashes of insight on the screen before they fade. It’s easy to come back and delete, reword, or correct what’s wrong. (Wouldn’t it be great if all human error were that easy to correct?)
Furthermore, with the computer, you can work on several projects at once. For example, when I think of something I’d like to add to my Convention sermon notes, I “close the document” on this chapter I’m writing, and replace it with the “Convention Sermon” disk. I “open” the new document and call for a “search string,” which is the computer’s way of helping you go quickly to any location in your composition by searching for a certain word or “string” of letters. Insert the word you want it to find, and, buzz, whir, hum. A message appears: “One Moment Please,” and there it is. The cursor is blinking at the very spot you want to revise. It always works, except when a misspelled word in your search string sends the disk drive on a wild-goose chase. Machines have no feelings, I know, but mine seems to express disappointment when it ends a futile search with the message: “Can’t find****”
No, I would never go back. It now seems perfectly natural to compose material directly on the keys of the word processor, eliminating most of the tedious steps of the old-fashioned style. Revisions are easy, and you can either choose to keep the old edition for later reference or save the new one, or both. When you’re through, you’re ready to print a perfect copy in whatever format you choose. I hope someday I can convince my slow-writing friend that it’s the only way to go. He could be so much more productive if he retired his ancient typewriter and joined the revolutionary new world of computers. And so could you.
Potential Pitfalls
There are pitfalls in computer writing. The machine has what one author called “a dark underbelly.” Things can go wrong. Words printed on paper have a comforting, visible permanence to them. You know without a doubt they exist. Words on paper can be safely folded up in a manila folder, fastened on a clipboard, or snapped into a three-ring binder. They exist. I’m not so sure about words on a screen. Scientists say computer words are nothing more than pixels of light projected on the screen by a cathode ray tube. They don’t seem to exist in the real sense I have always thought written words existed.
At the beginning of my pilgrimage into computer writing, I had some serious doubts. Couldn’t something happen accidentally — the wrong key pushed, a power failure, or an attack by one of those demonic gremlins that plague any electronic device I put my hands on? Couldn’t these words that semiexist on the screen just vanish into thin air? (There’s no air any thinner than the air into which a preacher starting out on a computer fears his words will vanish.)
Or, just as frightening, if I followed the manual and stored my freshly-written sermon overnight on a disk, would I be able to call it back in the morning? The chances of ever seeing any sermon stored on something called “floppy” struck me as exceedingly low.
But that was beginner’s fear. Now after several years of experience, I know things can go wrong! Let me illustrate. I remember well the first time I tried to show off my new computer skills to my family. With wife, sister, brothers, and assorted in-laws gathered around my desk, I suggested confidently that my microcomputer could simplify a tedious but necessary task. It was following my father’s funeral. There were stacks of cards and paper notes with names of people who had brought food, sent flowers, or mailed personal greetings. The family wanted to respond to each of these, making certain no one was overlooked. I boldly claimed that my computer and I had the solution.
I organized the family and then sat down at the console of my computer. While one person called out the names, another looked up the addresses, and I typed the information under certain categories: food, flowers, memorial gifts, or greetings. After an hour of hard work, punctuated by familiar compliments of my computer ability, the impossible happened. I’d been sitting for a long time, so I shifted my chair, and moved the computer to a new position in front of me. The power strip into which I had plugged all my equipment was beside the computer. As I changed positions, my hand bumped against the power strip switch and turned it off. The screen went blank.
I recall saying something like, “Oops! I accidentally flipped a switch, just a second while I get it back on.” Now, up until then, the “foreverness” of a switched-off computer was something I had never experienced firsthand. But when the screen came back on again with its usual start-up messages, I knew. I fiddled with disks and key strokes, but deep down inside, I knew. Everything was lost! And I think they knew, too. Even though I came up with something like: “Let’s start all over, I believe there’s a better way to organize this”; they knew. It was humbling to say the least; but it taught me that things can go wrong.
You don’t have to accidentally touch a switch. A bolt of lightning can do it. Static electricity can do it. Not paying your electric bill can do it. When the computer goes off, whatever you’ve written disappears forever. You stare into space wondering where in the invisible world of electricity your lost masterpiece now resides. You have to start over, and with luck, a few of your lost sentences come limping back; but they’re seldom as scintillating as your creative originals. You’ve just experienced an electronic catastrophe.
Can you imagine the panic of a pastor on Saturday night at 11:30? He’s at his computer, almost finished with the sermon he’ll preach in the morning. He walks across the wool carpet to get a book, comes back, and zap! A static spark jumps from his finger to the computer and wipes out the entire sermon! (Satan has a new tool to use against the preacher.)
But there are precautions you can take to avoid such disasters. Every once in a while, stop, push two buttons, and wait a second while the work you’ve done up to that point is stored safely on its disk. It only takes a second, and it ensures that you will still have your work even if the power goes off. (In fact, I think I’ll push those two buttons right now just in case!)
Don’t take chances. Put a static pad under your computer. Keep the humidity high. Use a power surge plug. Above all, save your material as you go and make “backups” of your work on another disk. This is a quick and simple operation which in seconds automatically copies everything on one disk to another for safekeeping. Since it’s easy, make printed copies periodically.
These computer horror stories are enough to make you fold up the book and go back to pencil and paper, but don’t panic. Such losses don’t occur often. It only happened to me once, before I learned to avoid disasters by taking precautions. Still, I wanted to include this section to show there is a “dark underbelly” to this otherwise beautiful beast of electronic writing. It’s not all peaches and cream, but it’s a remarkable new tool God has providentally provided for the proclaimer of the unchanging gospel.
Filing Sermon Material
When I was a student in the seminary, an enterprising salesman introduced us to a complex, efficient filing system. It was costly, but he convinced a lot of us we couldn’t do without it in our ministry. Every clipping, illustration, book, poem, or sermon could be placed under one of the subjects in the system, cross-indexed, and readily pulled out again when you needed it. It was a good idea, but after a few months I realized that to use it properly, I would have to devote my full time to filing. Somehow, I just didn’t feel called to the full-time ministry of manila folders. I returned the beautiful system to its original box, and gave it away. I suppose to this day, my slightly used box of filing materials continues to be passed on by one disappointed pastor to another.
Later, I developed a simpler filing system which I’ve used over the years. (I also admit to an occasional use of the “second-drawer-on-the-left” method. Anything of interest is stacked in that drawer, and reviewed for relevent material each time I prepare a sermon.)
First, in my search for a simpler way, I established a sermon file. I gave each sermon a consecutive number, and filed it in its folder behind the last sermon I had preached. Over the years the file boxes full of consecutively numbered sermons have accumulated from sermon #1 to #2025. In my copy of A Pastor’s Five-Year Record Book, I listed the number, subject, and text of each sermon as well as where I preached it.
On separate file cards, I cross-referenced the Scripture texts and subjects, so that, if I wanted to see the sermons I’d preached on “Grace,” I pulled out that card, and there sermons #245, #855, and a dozen others were listed. The same is true of the Scripture file.
Since filing is one of the tasks a computer does best, I’m now transferring these paper files to the PFS:FILE system on my computer. When complete, it will give me instant access to every sermon by title, subject, or text as well as separate listings of poems and illustrations. I only wish I could have started out this way thirty years ago. Not only does the computer offer advantages in filing sermons and illustrations, but you can save your study notes as well. The commentary study material and the final sermon manuscripts you store on floppy disks become a permanent file, too.
Each disk holds 174,000 characters. With the “compressed document” feature on my word processor, that’s enough space to store about seventy-five pages of double-spaced, typed material, 8 1/2 by 11 inches. Most of my sermon manuscripts are about fifteen pages long, which means I can store five sermon manuscripts on one paper-thin disk. Use both sides of a floppy and you can double that capacity. Add a hard disk drive to your computer and one disk can hold five million characters. In place of the twenty filing boxes of sermons stacked in three cabinets behind my desk, I could store a lifetime of sermon manuscripts in a few disks on one shelf!
Electronic filing takes less time than the paper method, and it’s so much better. I’m convinced it’s worth the trouble to change from your present system even if you’re at mid-career. But if you’re just beginning your ministry, the reasons to start now are overwhelming.
Preaching the Sermon Again
Maybe not all of them are, but some of your sermons are worth preaching again. After a few years at a church, most of us have recycled a few of our “sugar sticks” before the same congregation. Update them, change a few stories, and if they were blessed by God the first time you preached them, try them again — unless you have a deacon in your church like I had in Houston. He opened his Bible to the text of every sermon, and marked the subject and the date in the margin. Even after several years, if I preached that sermon again, Dan would smile at me from his favorite pew, raise his hand and give me an “A-OK” signal to let me know he remembered. I could never preach a sermon twice without his knowing it. He assured me, however, that he didn’t mind hearing them again.
You may not preach your sermons again to the same congregation, but when invitations come to preach in a revival or in seminary chapel, for example, or if you move to another church field, your sermon file becomes a valuable resource. On those occasions, you’ll be glad you took time to build a good filing system.
Visualize the following scenario. You have a computerized sermon filing system in place, and you’ve been invited by a preacher friend to speak at his building dedication service. That sermon you prepared for your own church’s dedication service two years ago would be perfect for this new occasion. If you saved it on disk, you’re in luck. Call up the subject: “Building Dedication” on your computer filing system to find the number of the message and the disk on which you stored it. Load the disk, and call it up on the screen.
Obviously, you’ll need to make some changes in the sermon. After all, in Houston, you wouldn’t want to say, “We are here in Fort Worth today to dedicate this beautiful building.” But changes are no trouble. Read through the manuscript on the screen, making whatever revisions you like, and then print out a perfect edition for the building dedication service.
You can print on regular 8V2 x 11 paper; double, triple, or any space; use a variety of type styles; or print on smaller notebook paper or cards — whatever your customary method calls for. When the printing is completed, your original is stili there on the disk, along with your revised, updated version, waiting for the next invitation to preach a dedication sermon. After you preach at the other church, throw that manuscript away. There’s no need to clutter up your study with unnecessary paper files.
If only this amazing system had been available years ago. I’ve preached some of my favorite sermons in dozens of locations, and my manuscripts show it. When you’ve erased the names of twelve different towns in order to write in another, your notes begin to disintegrate. Even with few changes, sermon notes used dozens of times begin to look like they’ve been used dozens of times. Wouldn’t it be great to take an old favorite into the pulpit looking like it just came out of the typewriter? As a matter of fact it just did, if you have a computer.
Maybe I get carried away in my enthusiasm for computer-assisted preaching, but I believe my enthusiasm is well-founded. The possibilities for computer applications in sermon preparation are already abundant, and new ones are appearing every day.
1. Mike Cane, The Computer Phone Book, New American Library (New York: Times Mirror, 1983).
2. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Read a Book, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940), pp. 90-91.
From Persona] Computer: A New Tool for Ministers by Russell H. Dilday. (c) Copyright 1985 Broadman Press, Nashville, TN. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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